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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Grain legume-cereal intercropping enhances the use of soil-derived and biologically fixed nitrogen in temperate agroecosystems. A meta-analysis

Rodriguez Gonzalez, Carolina; Carlsson, Georg; Englund, Jan-Eric; Flöhr, Adam; Pelzer, Elise; Jeuffroy, Marie-Helene; Makowski, David; Jensen, Erik Steen


Grain legumes are known for their benefits to deliver ecosystem services on provisioning of protein-rich food and feed, reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the symbiotic nitrogen fixation function and diversification of cropping systems. Intercropping is an agroecological practice in which two or more crop species are grown simultaneously in the same field, thereby maximizing the use of resources to enhance yields in low input systems and the resilience of cropping systems. We quantified the effect of grain legume-cereal intercropping on the use of N resources in temperate agroecosystems, focusing on dinitrogen (N-2) fixation and soil-derived nitrogen acquisition using a meta-analysis of 29 field-scale studies. We estimated and compared effects of different intercrop compositions (proportion of each species in the intercrops), fertilization rates, crop species, soil properties, and other management practices on the symbiotic N-2 fixation and the acquisition of soil-derived nitrogen by the cereals and grain legumes. The proportion of N derived from N-2 fixation was on average 14 % (95 % CI = [11, 16]) higher in intercropped grain legumes (76 %) compared to legume sole crops (66 %). On the other hand, intercropping reduced the amount of N-2 fixed (kg ha(-1)) by about 15 %, when N(2 )fixation in inter- and sole cropped legumes was expressed at equivalent density by compensating for the sown legume proportion in intercrops relative to their sole crop sowing rate. The results were mainly influenced by the intercrop composition, legumes species and the method used to quantify N-2 fixation. Soil-derived nitrogen acquisition in intercropped grain legumes was significantly reduced (- 47 %, 95 % CI = [- 56, - 36]) compared to sole crop legumes, expressed at equivalent density, while the soil N acquired by intercropped cereals was much higher (+ 61 %, 95% CI = [24, 108]) than in sole crop cereals. Total soil N acquisition (legume + cereal) was significantly higher in intercrops than in legume sole crops (+ 25 %, 95 % CI = [1, 54]), while there was no significant difference between intercrops and cereal sole crops. The meta-analysis confirms and highlights that intercropping consistently stimulates complementary N use between legumes and cereals by increasing N-2 fixation by grain legumes and increasing soil N acquisition in cereals. Based on the results of this analysis it would be suggested that cropping systems diversification via intercropping can be used for simultaneous production of both cereals and grain legumes, while increasing the use of N-sources and reducing external inputs of N fertilizers, thereby enhancing the sustainability of agriculture.


Intercropping; Grain legumes; Symbiotic N(2)fixation; Soil N acquisition; Ecosystem services; Plant interactions

Published in

European Journal of Agronomy
2020, Volume: 118, article number: 126077